‘There’s a lot of fear:’ Low fall-run chinook salmon stocks expected on Sacramento River

by: Damon Arthur, Redding Record Searchlight


Clayton Hines, a fish culturist at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery, corrals young salmon before they're pumped into a tanker for a trip to the San Francisco Bay where they were released on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.
Clayton Hines, a fish culturist at Coleman National Fish Hatchery, corrals young salmon before they’re pumped into a tanker for a trip to the San Francisco Bay where they were released on May, 4, 2021. Mike Chapman/Record searchlight

It’s going to be a bad year for Sacramento River chinook salmon. That was the message from this year’s annual Salmon Information Meeting attended by state and federal fisheries scientists.

State and federal officials announced one of the lowest adult fall-run chinook salmon population estimates since 2008, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The fall-run chinook is considered the predominant species of salmon in freshwater and ocean fisheries, the state said. This year, the state forecast 169,767 adults in the population.

Because of the low salmon numbers, there could be severe restrictions on commercial and recreational salmon fishing this year, said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association.

“There’s a lot of fear in the fleet. And that goes for both the commercial guys, as well as all of the industries and businesses that service recreational salmon fishing, which are considerable,” McManus said.

A group of fishermen’s associations has called on state officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, to close ocean and inland salmon fishing seasons and declare a state of emergency so fishing operators would be eligible for disaster assistance funds.

Out of the four chinook salmon species that spawn in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, the fall-run is the largest. Most of the fish that return to the Shasta-Tehama county stretch of the river are hatched at Coleman National Fish Hatchery south of Anderson.

During good years, when there are large numbers of adult salmon returning to spawn in the summer and fall, it is a common sight to see dozens of fishing boats in the Sacramento River south of Redding. Those boats carry anglers trying to catch the 3-year-old adult fish that can reach 30 inches or more in length.

Fish and wildlife department director Charlton Bonham said the lower numbers of salmon are likely due to drought conditions in the state three years ago when the salmon were hatched and released.

“This is a decades-long trend, and the past few years of record drought only further stressed our salmon populations,” Bonham said in a news release. “Unfortunately, low stock abundance is somewhat expected despite protective and restorative actions California has taken to increase hatchery production, improve release strategies, and increase the availability of critical spawning and rearing habitats.”

In 2020, there were about 12.4 million hatchery-raised salmon released from Coleman. There also are other fish hatcheries in the state that produce fall-run chinook.

McManus blamed the low salmon numbers on poor management of water releases from Shasta Dam. He said that in the late summer and fall of 2020 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reduced water releases into the Sacramento River, leaving salmon spawning nests de-watered and killing the eggs.

Warm water released from the dam also killed salmon eggs in the river, he said.

“I mean, granted, we’ve been in a drought. But during a drought, there’s hard decisions that have to be made, obviously. But does that mean that one party gets all the water in a drought and the other party gets none? And in this case, we’re talking about agriculture gets all the water and the fisheries get none,” McManus said.

The Sacramento River forecast was not the only bad news that came out of the March 1 meeting. State officials said they expect 103,793 Klamath River chinook, which represents the lowest numbers since 1997.

Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy consultant for the Karuk Tribe, said the forecast in the Klamath “underscores the immediate need for restoration, like removing the lower four Klamath River dams. It also underscores the need to get the flow (in the river) right. And currently, the Bureau of Reclamation, is cutting Klamath River flows below what is supposed to be the biological minimums.”

Based on the forecasts released March 1, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council will develop three alternatives for ocean fishing seasons next week and make a final decision in early April, state fish and wildlife officials said.

The California Fish and Game Commission will approve fishery seasons and regulations in early April, state officials said.